Sunday, February 13, 2011

The unapproachable English language

It was about 15 minutes into my first pedicure of the season, in prep for my beach vacation, when the Vietnamese woman doing my nails looked up at me and said, "Can I ask you a question?". She's a friendly woman, about my age, who more than half the times I treat myself to this indulgence, is the one who does my nails. So we've talked many times before. She knows I am originally from Canada, and has told me of her cousins who live there. So the way she asked the question caught me a little, and I thought it must be something personal. I listened.

"You know the show The Bachelor? I watch the show and they say something I don't know what it means. She say, 'I don't wear my heart on my sleeve'. I don't understand," she says as she motions with her chin to the sleeve of her blouse (her hands were in the basin at my feet). I explain it means the character is not openly showing her emotions, but rather keeping them in check. Her face lights up with a smile as she thanks me. I can see her working this new meaning around in her head, when she says, "It means she hides". Yes, that's right, I confirm.

A few minutes pass and she says, "I didn't know you were coming today, or I have lots of questions. I keep a list and write them down". I told her she can ask me anything, but she says she didn't bring her list, and continues on to say she doesn't feel she can ask most people her questions because she doesn't want to disturb them. I told her I would answer anything and not to worry about disturbing me.

As I sat in the massaging chair and watched my new nails take shape I thought about the notion of approachability and why someone would give off the air that they weren't, to someone like this who clearly just wanted to learn.

A few more minutes passed and she looked at me and said, "For me, speaking English I feel frustrating". I empathized and told her it's a very difficult and unapproachable language, especially when it comes to these strange colloquiallisms like wearing one's heart on a sleeve. Her smile and nod told me she didn't understand "colloquiallism" - and stupid me had no more accessible way of describing it.

She then asked me, "Are upset and frustrating the same or different"? I explained that, to me, "upset" means more like "sad", and "frustrating" can have a bit of "anger" in it - carefully choosing my words to be both meaninful but hopefully approachable to her. She smiled again and said, "Then to me, when I want to speak English and they can't understand I feel upset, not frustrating".

We had made a connection for sure. She thanked me for helping her. I thanked her too, for reminding me to stop and recognize how challenging an unapproachable world can be. And I resolved to continue to do my part to help change that.

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